From courtyards to mallyards: Hadid-Zaha’s Chaoyangmen Soho building.
Regardless of the plastic-organic beauty, fans and critics have argued over whether the Chaoyangmen Soho provides social, historical and economic value.
Like Beijing’s (also RIBA award winning) Olympic Birdcage , the Mall was built on land cleared of a historic neighbourhood. The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre’s He Shuzdong described the demolished urban villages as “the old Beijing streetscape, the original urban plan, the traditional hutong and courtyard houses, the landscape formation, and the style and colour scheme of Beijing’s unique vernacular architecture.”
That destruction of public cultural heritage is part of a China-wide trend that ? in the capital ? has seen more than half the historic urban areas destroyed by what Beijing’s preservation watchdog calls “greedy developers” working “hand-in-hand with some corrupted officials”. Soho China’s CEO Zhang Xin agrees that property development (like other business) is generally ruled by “gaunxi” (relationships, or “who you know”), but argues that Soho’s development is free of corruption.
The relationship of the new mall to its urban-historical context was discussed in the English newspaper The Guardian.
The paper recorded He Shuzdong’s criticism that the mall had illegally destroyed the city’s built heritage. RIBA, however, praised it for the “rare generosity” of its public spaces.
Hadid?Zaha told The Guardian that the mall provides “a reflection of traditional Chinese architecture where courtyards create an internal world of continuous open spaces.” These varied public spaces “directly engage with the city … reinterpreting the traditional urban fabric and contemporary living patterns into a seamless urban landscape”.
Zhang Xin views Hadid-Zaha as one of the architects “who understand what the next generation requires; connecting communities and traditions with new technologies and innovations to embrace the future.”
Public use of the mall-yards and associated commercial space is one measure of the success or failure of Hadid-Zaha’s reinvention. Micha? Jurgielewicz argues that its current emptiness points to a design failure. Visitor experience of the mall tends to support Jurgielewicz’s argument. There are many photos of the Chaoyangmen Soho building on Tripadvisor, from Chinese and foreign visitors, most of which show it to be sparsely populated.
One visitor’s review summed the common experience: “Very photogenic place, but an absolute ghost town. Functioned more like a park than a real office building. But worthwhile to visit if one’s interested in modern architecture”. On the days of our visits, we also found that the mall’s many retail attendants outnumber the shoppers, while the prices of their luxury goods (tai gui le!) exceed the spending power of most urban village dwellers.
If Chaoyangmen Soho has become one of China’s many urban ghost towns, then Hank Dittmar may have been correct in describing its formal reflection of historic courtyards as “merely writing an obituary, not keeping the culture alive.”